Thursday, March 24, 2011

Judging a Book by its Cover

by Daniel Kuether

Is this a cloth book cover or perhaps something more?  This unusual item, graciously sent to the MHRC recently by Margaret Foster, was originally thought to be a beautifully detailed book cover used by the Darwin D. Martin family.  Upon further research, it appears that not only was the item used as a book cover, but it is also an important personal object from the Chinese Qing Dynasty!

The item is known as a Rank Badge or Mandarin Square.  The Rank Badge was worn by men and women during the Qing Dynasty through the early 20th century.  The squares were sewn to the front and back of coats, to outwardly display the achieved position in society.  Different motifs meant a different personal status.  This design, now in the Martin House collection, contains the “Silver Pheasant” motif of the 5th rank.

So why a book cover?  The popularity of these items in private Western collections at the beginning of the late 19th century saw creative alterations in their use.  The badges were often turned into wall art, coin purses, furniture upholstery, and for the Martins, an unusual cover for a beloved book.